This exercise develops descriptive writing skills and passion for language, through using made-up and portmanteau words. The exercise encourages individual responses and writing in any form.
Prep and resources
Students will need a blank A4 page each and a pen.
It’s helpful to have a set of dictionaries, for discovering definitions of real words, or else a list of strange / made-up words and their definitions.
You can find weird and wonderful words on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows which is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language – to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.
Icebreaker: portmanteau words
Introduce students to the idea of creating portmanteau words by taking two completely different words and merging them together create a new word: e.g. ‘ inspectre’ – a ghost detective; ’googulp’ – when you drink in information; ‘gorillusion’ – an ape which does not exist.
Ask students to come up with as many new portmanteau words as they can in ten minutes.
Exercise: words, words, words
Explain to the students that they are about to write in response to a word and its definition. They can choose their favourite word. The strangest word they know. Or you can provide them with a list of unusual words and their dictionary definitions. Or you might want them to select a made up word from a list of made up words such as the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.
Once selections have been made, have the group share their word, its definition, and the reason they have chosen it.
Next, ask students to think about the following questions:
- Does your word suggest a time or place to you? If so, describe it in a sentence.
- Does your word suggest a character or creature to you? If so, describe it in a sentence.
- Does your word suggest an event or incident? If so, describe it in a sentence.
Encourage students to write in response to their word. They are free to write in any form e.g. a poem, a piece of flash fiction, spoken word, or memoir. Ask them to create a tone and mood in their writing, to match the word. Only one rule: do not use the word itself. Instead, try and convey the word and its meaning in the atmosphere and emotion that the piece creates.
Once their first block of writing time is complete, ask students to underline their favourite sentence to share. Why have they chosen to share these particular words? How did they get to these words from their starting word and definition? What is effective about the words they have chosen to share?
Following discussion, give the students time to extend and/or edit their writing. Finish by inviting the students to read their whole piece aloud.
She chose the following word from a selection from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows during the following workshop and completed the relevant activities responding to the word she chose and its definition:
n. a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life, a mood whose only known cure is the vuvuzela.
This exercise was provided by First Story Writer-in-Residence Dan Powell.